Many pilots have had the urge to "duck under" or "take a peek" when executing an approach down to minimums. While this may seem to be an acceptable maneuver, in reality it is extremely dangerous. On August 8, 2003, the pilot of a Piper Cherokee Six and his passenger were killed when the pilot chose to descend below the minimum descent altitude (MDA) while performing the VOR-A approach at Seaman's Airport (9N3) in Factoryville, Pennsylvania.
At the time of the accident Wilkes-Barre/Scranton weather (the closest reporting facility) reported the visibility at 3 miles, calm winds, mist, clear skies, temperature 66 degrees F, dew point 66 degrees F, and a barometric pressure setting of 29.92 inches Hg. The MDA noted for the VOR-A approach was 651 feet agl (1,860 feet msl) with a minimum visibility of 1 mile.
Investigators found a handheld GPS in the wreckage, and were able to download the aircraft's flight path for the entire flight. The last minute showed the airplane following a heading of 299 degrees, then a turn to 017 degrees as it flew over the runway. Also recorded was a descent from 2,000 feet msl to 1,268 feet msl; more than 600 feet below the published MDA. The airport diagram showed trees at 1,287 feet msl in the area of impact.
Numerous people on the ground reported poor weather at the time of the accident, including fog, forward visibility between 50 and 100 feet, and low ceilings. Witnesses also heard an airplane fly over at a low rpm, followed immediately by sounds of the engine going to full power. Thereafter, they heard the sound of a crash.
The NTSB determined the cause of this accident to be the pilot's improper decision to descend below the published MDA while executing a non-precision approach in IMC.
The pilot had 445 hours total time, 30 of which were in the accident make and model aircraft. He also had 81 hours of actual instrument time.
Instrument pilots know that the minimums for an instrument approach are established for a reason—safety. Continuing to descend in order to find the airport could put the airplane in danger of hitting trees, towers, or other obstructions. Always treat the MDA as an absolute hard deck. If needed, execute a missed approach and try again or proceed to another airport.
For more information about safe IFR procedures, take the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's Single Pilot IFR online course or read the companion Safety Advisor. If it's been a while since you flew IFR, brush up on the regulations with IFR Adventure: Rules to Live By.
Accident reports can be found in ASF's accident database.
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